Ben Hayman of brand purpose consultancy Given says companies can and should be prepared to take stands on issues such as racism, but only if their messaging is authentic and credible

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously ”took a knee” during the US national anthem and flying of the flag before an NFL game in 2016 to protest against racism. Some people objected to what they saw as unpatriotic behaviour, while others applauded, and followed, his protest.

Kaepernick said at the time ”this is bigger than football” and Nike’s decision to use him in the 30th anniversary celebrations of its ‘Just Do it’ campaign has had a similarly divisive affect on Americans. Since its launch, the #NikeBoycott hashtag is trending on Twitter with people sharing images of themselves destroying Nike products and others ridiculing such behaviour. However, online Nike sales are up 31%. But does Nike, a sportswear brand, have a right to take a stand on racial injustice?

What Nike is doing is picking a side – it's exactly the type of thing that brands should be doing more of

I believe that brands can and should be more political. They have huge influence, and thus an enormous opportunity to behave in a way that affects positive change. It’s a very difficult thing to do for large organizations, but making a choice about what they think is right and wrong is refreshing. What Nike is doing is picking a side. This is great. It’s also highly ambitious and exactly the type of thing that brands should be doing more of, for two reasons. Firstly, making a stand can help brands capture the attention of distracted consumers. But secondly, it’s also important in and of itself to make a stand on issues that matter.

Brands, especially huge global ones such as Nike, have immense influence in today’s society. Although their raison d’être may be as a commercial entity, their position within our culture means they have the ability to steer global conversations and the power to sway opinion. Consumers also want brands to get involved. Sprout Social recently polled 1,000 Americans to ask them about this and 66% said that it is “important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues”.

Huge global brands such as Nike have immense influence. (Credit: TY Lim/Shutterstock)

Also, according to communiations marketing firm Edelman, half of the world’s population are making belief-led buying decisions, particularly in developing countries like China and India. Writing in its 2017 Earned Brands study, the firm said: “Consumers are putting their personal convictions front and centre. From the grocery aisle to the car dealership, they’re buying on belief. Willing or not, brands of all kinds and sizes are now navigating this new reality. And in a lightning-quick digital world, the rewards and risks are equally high.”

The critical thing about why this works for Nike – and a watchword for all purpose-led activity – is that it is relevant, and credible for its fans, and substantiated by the way the brand behaves and operates. Nike has picked an issue that is important for its audience and, with a long heritage of using sportspeople and celebrities as brand ambassadors from a variety of backgrounds, it has the right to make a stand. When Tiger Woods, for example, turned professional, Nike launched the"‘Hello World" campaign, in which Woods discussed racial discrimination in golf. The type of campaign that brands can authentically take their stand on will, and should, look very different because they must be a reflection of a brand’s unique heritage and the priorities of its specific audience.

What’s interesting and different about Nike’s campaign is that it is adopting an individual’s cause, initiative and agenda, which is risky. It is risky because Nike is a brand, not a person. It has brand values, it has brand ethics, but can a corporate entity have morals, sentiment, and human experience? Brands that attempt to hold a mirror up to a sub-culture or movement are in danger of seeming inauthentic.

This particular campaign is also risky because it is much, much bigger than Nike. Bigger than sport

That said, Kaepernick is a Nike athlete, someone that the brand has invested in and publicized for years. Building on the back of an individual’s popularity, appeal and opinion is also something brands do overtly – or in more subtle ways – every single day. Would George Clooney be such a great brand ambassador for Nespresso if he didn’t have values that the brand’s audience aligned with, as well as making the product feel more desirable through his own desirability?

In Kaepernick’s case, as an individual reflection of the brand’s values, Nike has always advocated the idea of commitment, pride, passion, taking a risk and following a path that is true to who you are. It has championed athletes, and often the specific challenges that they have faced in their careers as individuals, and through that connected to different audiences. This is contemporary brand marketing.

However this particular campaign is also risky because it is much, much bigger than Nike. Bigger than sport. The brand is engaging with a hugely complex issue. It is an issue that touches on American history as well as American values. It is not about institutional racism, freedom of speech, civil liberties. It is about all of that and more. So this is dangerous, but also, important territory. The campaign has polarized consumers because the original issue polarized the public. Many Americans feel that Kaepernick’s stand was unpatriotic, disrespectful and anti-American rather than anti-racist.

Brands align with their ambassadors, as Nespresso does with George Clooney. (Credit: Nespresso)

There is also enormous risk in Nike taking on this issue and being found to be hypocritical. If people accused Nike of racism, sexism or showed the business to be unethical in the way it treats people, this could result in long-term reputational damage. Nike is a huge sprawling mass of individuals. It has enormous supply chains and operations that stretch the length and breadth of the planet. Across this business it is possible, actually it is highly probable, that there are individuals who do not behave in a way that is represented through the Nike brand. This again plays to the difference between a business taking up a cause and an individual doing the same.

There is also risk in overexposure – so far the campaign is estimated to have generated at least $43m worth of media coverage and the internet is awash with conversation about the “controversy”. The campaign has now generated so much noise that it is being hacked by people who see this as a platform to have some fun, or are taking their own stand.

If the message becomes appropriated by a much larger audience, there is a risk that this could undermine, not just the intent of the Kaepernick campaign, but also that of the Just Do It celebration. We know that the days where “no publicity is bad publicity” are gone and the investment in a big idea, targeted at specific audiences can easily come undone. And brands are fair game when it comes to attempts to connect through challenging or innovative communications campaigns. We’ve seen the fall-out from Gary Lineker Walkers crisps meme and of course Boaty McBoatface. If you search “Nike just do it” today, you will see that the campaign has gained notoriety, acclaim, but also hundreds of thousands of new interpretations.

Nike will have done its homework on any potential damage that this campaign could cause

Nike’s campaign risks alienating some audiences in the US who disagree with the message, but it will also have been a calculated risk. Nike has a track record of backing new talent, outsiders, and individuals who have polarized opinion – it will have done its homework on any potential damage that this campaign could cause.

Ultimately, Nike has made a strategic decision about what matters to its core and future audience. As with any celebrity endorsement, it has aligned with an ambassador that represents its brand idea but critically connects that idea to its core target audience. Nike has made a decision about the relative value of the audiences that will take umbrage with the campaign, and those who will feel it connects with them. As well as adopting a position that highlights an important issue, it has made a bet on an audience.

Nike will have made a strategic decision and taken into account any backlash. (Credit: Twitter)

Nike may well have taken into consideration the likelihood that the audience that disagrees with its message will be less likely to publicize their dissent. Those disagreeing may also be more likely to forgive and forget – and perhaps have changed their opinion as a result of the campaign.

Aside from audience split, they have certainly done their research. Last year, Kaepernick’s football shirts were at number 39 in the NFL Players Association’s official NFL merchandize top-50 list. Also, the timing of the campaign suggests that this was a considered move: it was released on US Labor day just as the NFL’s new season was about to begin.

Overall the Nike campaign is a great move. It lights a fire under the brand, as well as the issue. It shows that brands can and should get involved in issues beyond their core business. It demonstrates the opportunity for brands to grow by doing good.

Ben Hayman is managing partner of Given, a brand purpose agency that helps businesses grow by doing good:

Main picture credit: Nike


Colin Kapearnick  Nike  NFL  advertising  purpose  business ethics 

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